Sermon for Pentecost 11 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our reading this morning from the Epistle to the Hebrews seems at first to be a bit frightening. God is described as a consuming fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest. We are told that the earth will be shaken, and much will be destroyed before the Kingdom of God is established on earth.

There is a great deal in scripture about last things, what theologians call eschatology. In this church we don’t spend much time talking about that stuff, perhaps because so many fundamentalist Christians spend so much time talking about particular time-lines or theories, but I think we’re missing an opportunity here. The end of this world is a largely hopeful thing in Scripture, and too much focus on the nasty bits can distract us from the ultimate truth of the matter. The coming of Christ’s Kingdom is not something to be feared. Rather, we are promised a new heaven and a new earth in which justice and peace flourish and sin and death can no longer visit us. Though, to simply skip the nasty bits of scripture isn’t helpful or particularly honest if we claim to take scripture seriousy.

So, I want us to look at the destruction mentioned in this morning’s epistle, and I think we’ll see they are not as the terrifying acts of a vengeful God, but the loving acts of one who wants the best for us. Granted, the imagery in this morning’s Epistle isn’t warm and fuzzy. The ultimate power of the divine is awesome in the proper sense of that word- capable of eliciting awe and even fear. But even this aspect of God is about God’s love for us, not God’s wrath divorced from his love.

In the final analysis, the consuming fire of God is about distinguishing what is temporary and what endures. It helps us think about where we place our hope, what we invest in to put it in terms we might appreciate these days. Over the last few months, our Gospel readings have warned us against placing our hope in things that are passing away – namely, wealth and comfort and earthly power – and investing our time and treasure and energy into those things which will endure into eternity – namely, love, and mercy and the fruits of the Spirit.

Remember that in the reading from Hebrews, God does not destroy everything. Here again the word of the Lord:

This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken, as of what has been made, in order that what cannot be shaken may remain.

Love, and mercy and the fruits of the Spirit. Faith, hope, and charity. This is what we can be assured will remain, because they are the results of God working through us.

It is, I think, dangerous to point to one bit of the Gospels as the center of Jesus’ teaching, but we all tend to do it. A lot of people will point to John 3:16 or the Summary of the Law in Mark 12. They’re both good candidates, but I would humbly suggest a third candidate, from the 25th chapter of Matthew, in Jesus’ explanation of the final judgment, which I shall quote in full, as I believe it to be what it’s all about for Christians who desire the Kingdom:

When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’  Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 

This is what endures. This is what cannot be shaken and will remain to the ages of ages. This is the narrow gate of of Matthew’s Gospel, the line and plummet of the prophet Isaiah. “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken,” a kingdom based on love and service, “and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship.”

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 10 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Conflict is a normal part of relationships, particularly close relationships, and we all have different ways of dealing with it. Sometimes those ways are healthy, and sometimes they aren’t. There are those that love a good fight and will launch into any which arises. If you’ve spent much time on social media you will have recognized this sort of person, but you probably know some of them (or are one of them) in real life, too. Then there are those who avoid conflict at all costs. This might seem to us the wise path, but often it means that issues of the greatest import are neglected because too few had the courage to stand up and fight for what is right. What might have been avoided if, say, Neville Chamberlain hadn’t appeased Hitler? That, of course, is an extreme example, but there are so many times when conscience may lead us into conflict, and for those of us without the natural temerity of a natural debater, acting conscientiously could be a most difficult thing.

Sometimes our problem is in misunderstanding the requirements of the Gospel. We’ve watered down Jesus’ teaching, and believe its principle command is something like “be nice”. Now, don’t get me wrong: I like to be nice and for people to be nice to me. Peevishness and petulance are not a good way of showing the love of Christ. Even so, running from conflict when the stakes are high, when the truths of the Gospel and the wellbeing of God’s people are on the line, in an effort to “be nice” is terribly harmful for the cause in which we as Christians are engaged.

Jesus says to his disciples in this morning’s Gospel, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” That’s Luke’s version, and Matthew’s is even stronger “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

What follows is even more shocking. I’m sure it was upsetting to hear Jesus validate discord in families. But put yourself back in the first century, and imagine that you were raised in a good Jewish family, or even a Greek family which had been faithful in serving the pagan gods of Rome. Then imagine that you hear the Good News of God in Christ, that you are convicted of the truth of Christ’s death and resurrection, that you wish to serve the one true and living God as His Son had revealed Him. This would not have been a popular choice. It would most certainly have led to discord, and perhaps you would have been disowned by those you loved most of all. Would it then have been better that you never received the Gospel of life? Would it then have been better to shun that glorious news for the sake of peace at home? Would God have preferred it if you had taken the path which avoided conflict? By no means!

We still have these choices today, and sometimes they can even have consequences as dramatic as the choices those early disciples had to make. Many of us forget that there is now a whole generation of people being raised by basically irreligious parents. If you don’t believe me, come with me to the church I worked at in Brooklyn sometime, and you’ll meet plenty of young Christians whose family relationships have been strained ever since they turned from the righteous path of secular humanism to become Christians. And that is not to mention all those countless people today in places like China who have been shunned because of their commitment to Christ and his Church.

And then there are those choices we make for the sake of conscience that aren’t exactly the same, but carry with them the same issues. Plenty of people became outcasts in their families or their communities when they acted on a conviction that securing civil rights for blacks was a Christian imperative. Plenty of people have suffered domestic strife because they felt God calling them to be a missionary or to take up a vocation demanding poverty or celibacy despite it being unpopular with others.

Last week I preached about conviction, and today I have to add to those thoughts by suggesting that Jesus requires of us the development of a virtue which compliments it. That virtue is courage. Our convictions, as I said last week, compel us to act, but we must grow in courage to make it happen. When we learn that, as that wonderful hymn put it “the peace of God is no peace, but strife closed in the sod”, then courage will be required if we are to confront the conflict into which our Christian commitments bring us. What all those people listed in today’s Epistle had in common was the courage to act on faith. Rahab and Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah and David and Samuel and the prophets and the whole people of Israel in their flight from Egypt— all of them had the courage to risk their lives and their livelihoods and all they held dear because they were convicted by God and His promise.

With so great a cloud of witnesses, how can we not do the same? Let us, then, face strife with courage, not running away, not deciding to “just be nice”, but standing up for that which really matters. We may think ourselves too timid, but the God of Hosts is with us, and by Him are we encouraged. Let us stand up for Jesus, not fearing loss, for our only gain is his banner, the wondrous, life-giving Cross.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 9 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

What is faith? I think if one were to ask most people they’d give a rather simple answer, something like “believing stuff you can’t know for sure.” This isn’t a terribly popular thing in our rational, scientific age. But faith means a great deal more than the simplistic definition.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews uses a couple of words which transform our understanding of faith: assurance and conviction. Faith is not just about believing stuff; faith is about receiving an assurance that our greatest hopes will come to pass. Faith is not some tepid assent to facts that we choose to believe because we might as well; faith is about engendering conviction– a certainty about God’s promise which changes how we live.

This is all very abstract, so let us take Abraham as our example. Abraham was not a captive to wishful thinking. His initial state was fear. God begins his conversations with Abraham in today’s Old Testament lesson, by bidding him “do not be afraid”, yet Abraham remains fearful. He desires what every man of his era desired: a legacy in the form of descendants, and he is justifiably afraid that it will never happen. Observation and reason have taught him that his hope was empty. No man of his age, with a wife apparently incapable of conceiving, could have hope for children.

Yet, God gives Abraham an assurance that the promise will be kept, and he immediately believes. Assurance only means something if the one giving it is in a relationship with the one receiving it. Abraham’s relationship with God was strong, and so the assurance was received. Despite all evidence pointing to the impossibility of God keeping the promise, Abraham’s relationship with God was strong enough to elicit trust.

Now Abraham’s response was not just any kind of trust. It was what we might call “conviction.” Ordinary trust doesn’t require anything of the beneficiary save confidence in the trustee. Conviction, on the other hand, requires action. Conviction changes one’s whole outlook and approach. Immediately after this morning’s reading, Abraham makes sacrifice to God. Throughout the next several chapters he will obey God’s commands even when he doesn’t understand the point, most significantly in the binding of Isaac after Sarah does give birth. Ultimately, it is through this kind of conviction, the principle component of faith, by which God himself is proved faithful.

This is good news for us, but it is also a great challenge. It is good news because it means that we can be assured of things unseen if we maintain our relationship with God. We can come to a place of profound confidence simply by maintaining that bond, as did Abraham and all the great heroes of our faith. It is, however, a challenge, because it means that something is required of us, namely conviction. The Christian life isn’t just about believing certain propositions despite the lack of evidence, as important as believing those propositions is. It is also about letting those truths change us. It is about bearing the good fruits of virtue: temperance and justice and mercy and love. Just as Abraham’s faith proved God faithful, so will our faith if we live with conviction. Just like Abraham, and just like all the saints, we can not only believe but know, know more sincerely and more powerfully than we can know the truths of reason and science, that God has prepared for us “a better country… a heavenly one.” When we live in the great joy of that knowledge, our lives will be changed, will be transformed into sacrifices just as pleasing to God as was Abraham’s.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.